On May 30, 1989, pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square erected a large statue, called the Goddess of Democracy, that resembled New York’s Statue of Liberty. It symbolized the desire of the Chinese people for freedom, democracy, and human rights and soon became a focal point for demonstrators. On June 4, 1989, the Chinese regime launched a brutal crackdown against the protesters. The regime destroyed the statue and many other symbols of the movement, and killed an untold number of students and civilians. That brutal campaign to erase any memory of the protests continues today—not just in China but also in the United States and other countries where statues and memorials may be found.
In China, suppression of any discussion of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident is swift and thorough. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censors the Internet, blocks social media sites, and bans any public discussion or reporting on the incident. It also continues to prohibit any public gatherings or protests related to the event and arrests and punishes those, including the Tiananmen Mothers, who attempt to commemorate the protests and crackdown or seek to hold the government accountable for its violent actions. The CCP has also attempted to erase the physical symbols of the massacre. The famous “Tank Man” images, which captured the moment when a lone protester stood in front of a line of tanks, have been scrubbed from Chinese history books and are never shown in public exhibitions or media. In fact, no one knows who the Tank Man was or what has become of him.
The effects of the CCP’s efforts to erase the memory of Tiananmen Square are profound. The government’s censorship has prevented many young Chinese people from learning about the events, creating a generation that is largely unaware of what happened in Beijing in 1989. This has allowed the CCP to maintain its grip on power and control the narrative of Chinese history.
In other countries, however, memorials abound, including in the United States. In 1994, a replica of the Tiananmen Square Goddess of Democracy statue was installed in Portsmouth Square Park in San Francisco’s Chinatown to honor the pro-democracy movement. This was a remarkable effort by Americans to help preserve the memory of one of the most important events in modern Chinese history. But the effort to erect the statue was not easy, thanks to Beijing’s pushback.
In July 1989, despite near unanimous local support for erecting a re-creation of the demonstrators’ Goddess of Democracy statue, the effort suddenly faced internal obstacles within San Francisco city government. It was soon revealed that the Consulate of the People’s Republic of China in San Francisco had been trying to strong-arm the city government into dropping its plans to place the statue in such a prominent location.
The resulting public outcry against China ensured that the bronze statue would indeed rise in the park, and it was eventually dedicated there on June 4, 1994, the fifth anniversary of the massacre. Present at the unveiling were Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Frank Wong, founder of the Chinese Democracy Education Foundation, and seven of the “21 most wanted” student leaders from Tiananmen Square. The event united Americans and their tradition of defending democratic values with the Chinese people and their desire for freedom.
But the statue’s days in San Francisco may be numbered if Beijing gets its way. The sculptor, Thomas Marsh, claims that several weeks ago a source with knowledge of city government contacted him about the upcoming plan to renovate Portsmouth Square Park. According to the source, CCP surrogates are pushing for the Goddess of Democracy statue to be removed for the renovation project—and not returned after the renovations are complete.
These accusations remain unconfirmed for the time being, but they’re consistent with the CCP’s past opposition to the statue, as well as other documented efforts by Beijing to influence democratic governments around the world. China has also reportedly undertaken efforts to interfere with Chinese Americans’ speech and political activity.
San Francisco’s Tiananmen memorial has been in the park for nearly 30 years now, and many people in the community view it as a symbol of resilience and hope, as well as a reminder that Americans must not take freedom and democracy for granted. San Franciscans and Americans should work to ensure that any effort by the Chinese government to have the statue removed from Portsmouth Square Park is defeated.
The CCP regime, especially under Xi Jinping, has made no secret of its disdain for democratic values. While touting its autocratic governing system as a “whole process people’s democracy,” the regime has used its economic power to influence, penetrate, and undermine America’s democratic way of life—whether it’s in politics, business, educational institutions, sports, or the media. The American public is awakening to this reality. San Francisco should not hand the CCP a victory. Let the statue stand.
Photo by Martin Haeusler/WikiMedia Commons